Friday, February 08, 2008

The Law of Unintended Consequences?

The Indian Rights movement in Mexico has had some successes, at least if we limit Indians to only men:

Women in this Indian village high in the pine-clad mountains of Oaxaca rise each morning at 4 a.m. to gather firewood, grind corn, prepare the day's food, care for the children and clean the house.

But they aren't allowed to vote in local elections, because — the men say — they don't do enough work.

It was here, in a village that has struggled for centuries to preserve its Zapotec traditions, that Eufrosina Cruz, 27, decided to become the first woman to run for mayor — despite the fact that women aren't allowed to attend town assemblies, much less run for office.

The all-male town board tore up ballots cast in her favor in the Nov. 4 election, arguing that as a woman, she wasn't a "citizen" of the town. "That is the custom here, that only the citizens vote, not the women," said Valeriano Lopez, the town's deputy mayor.

Rather than give up, Cruz has launched the first serious, national-level challenge to traditional Indian forms of government, known as "use and customs," which were given full legal status in Mexico six years ago in response to Indian rights movements sweeping across Latin America.

This is a real dilemma in any legal system where the laws were all decided a long time ago, including the Islamic sharia law. Medieval law-makers didn't have today's views on equality and neither, it seems, did the old Zapotec traditions.

At the same time, it looks like Cruz has a good case:

The law states that Indian townships may "apply their own normative systems ... as long as they obey the general principles of the Constitution and respect the rights of individuals, human rights, and particularly the dignity and well-being of women."

Despite this specific protection, about a fourth of the Indian villages operating under the law don't let women vote, putting human rights groups in a dilemma: Most actively supported recognition for Indian governance systems, and few have therefore taken up the women's cause.

Note that last quoted sentence and then sigh.

I'm not sure how human rights groups can think of the word "human" as not covering women. But then I'm a feminist, I guess.